This is the final part (for the time being) of my musings sparked off by reading ‘Murder in Mykonos’ and examining the various uses of ‘shined’ and ‘shone’ as the past tense of the verb ‘to shine’ (see previous two posts).
Let me pick up the discussion where we left off, with the observation that the intransitive use of ‘shined’ is more common in a figurative context than when the verb retains its literal meaning, as in the following contrastive examples:
The stars that shone in the night sky
The stars who shined at the Oscars
But it’s a little more complicated than that. After all, it is frequently unclear at which point figurative or metaphorical usage becomes so commonplace that it is treated as literal meaning. To pursue the example taken from the Oscars a little further, the use the word ‘star’ as in ‘film star’ is not generally regarded as a metaphor, but merely as another meaning for the word ‘star’. The same phenomenon can take place with verbs. The general context plays an important part in this, too. In Hollywood terms, for example, the attachment to the literal meanings of ‘star’ and ‘shone’ and to the notion of light is much weaker than in the example of outshining the Sun King.
The power of context
Applying this notion to the transitive use of the verb ‘to shine’, the direct context can have a significant effect on the choice of form. For example, we would commonly find:
He shined his flashlight
He shone his flashlight.
But by contrast,
He shined my shoes
would prevail over
He shone my shoes
Why? Because in the second example, the verb has taken on an extended meaning inasmuch as the relationship between the verb and the direct object is a different one. Clearly, in both cases, the action involves making something shine, i.e. causing it to emit light in some way, but we can illustrate the difference by analysing the examples further:
In both cases, the object is made to shine, but whereas you can ‘shine a light’ on something’, you can not ‘shine shoes on something.’
In a sense, the verb in the first example is not really ‘to shine’ + object, but ‘to shine a light on’ + object.
To simply the effect of context on meaning here, we can observe:
Shine a light = illuminate
Shine shoes = polish
This is why the butler shined (rather than shone) the silverware.
Here, we see that there is a semantic feedback loop between the influence of the context and the form we tend to choose.
But this feedback loop is not absolute and it is not constant; it follows a pattern, but the pattern is not a simple one. And it must be superimposed onto the previous insights concerning variations in usage in different cultural contexts and over a period of time.
The result is a dynamic feedback loop in which the context influences both form and meaning.
This feedback loop highlights the fundamentally fractal nature of language. This is a concept I have explained in detail in The Fractal Approach to Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The essence of my argument is that language demonstrates many of the characteristics of fractal forms, in particular: